Omaha fire chief leaves with $10,900-a-month pension and pledge of no layoffs - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 9:37 am
Omaha fire chief leaves with $10,900-a-month pension and pledge of no layoffs

Fire Chief Mike McDonnell's tenure is finished.

An exit package brokered Monday between Mayor Jean Stothert's administration and the embattled fire chief carries considerable financial implications.

The agreement protects current department staff from layoffs through next July 1 and gives McDonnell a full pension, more than a year before he qualifies for it.

The agreement also keeps all existing fire equipment in service through next July 1, with the exception of a medic unit based in South Omaha. .

McDonnell said the deal means Stothert needs to add about $2 million to the Fire Department budget. The mayor, however, said no additional funds were needed. Stothert said she expected the department budget to pass Tuesday.

McDonnell will receive a $10,900 monthly pension. He said that is about $900 more than he qualifies for with his 23 years and 10 months of service.

“These changes are in the best interest of the City of Omaha and will move the Fire Department ahead in a positive manner,” Stothert said in a statement.

Said McDonnell: “It was an honor to serve the city.”

Bernard Kanger

Battalion Chief Bernard Kanger, who has served with the department since 1991, has been named interim chief. The Air Force veteran holds a master's degree from Grand Canyon University and a bachelor's degree from Western Illinois University, the city said.

“Bernie Kanger has the training, skills and experience to lead the Omaha Fire Department,” Stothert said. “His boots on the ground experience has earned the respect of his fellow firefighters.”

McDonnell's departure comes as the City Council prepares to vote Tuesday on Stothert's proposed 2014 budget.

The exit agreement, signed by Stothert and McDonnell, must be codified into a legally binding contract by Friday or else it is void.

The chief gets credit for 25 years of service and a retirement ceremony. The city will pay his share of his pension contribution through October 2014.

The agreement includes a “joint non-disparagement” clause until next July 1.

The city will maintain three of its four assistant chief positions through 2014. A fourth chief will retire this October.

McDonnell held a small press conference just before 7 p.m. Monday at headquarters in front of a city fire engine. He had already packed his city-issued SUV with personal effects and memorabilia.

He will be placed on paid administrative leave for the immediate future.

Stothert has made it clear since her mayoral campaign that she wanted McDonnell out.

Efforts to negotiate his future have been discussed intermittently for several weeks.

The two have been at odds over the mayor's proposed $90.6 million Fire Department budget, which could have forced layoffs, demotions and pulling firetrucks and ambulances from service.

McDonnell has sought a roughly $94 million budget. That included $150,000 to pay University of Nebraska Medical Center consultants who supervise the department's emergency medical service. They replaced Stothert's husband, Dr. Joe Stothert, after he was dismissed by McDonnell and Mayor Jim Suttle.

Stothert temporarily ordered the department's personnel not to speak publicly about its budget and barred fire officials from promoting staff or making purchases without “notice to and approval by the mayor.”

At the same time, Stothert made a sweeping request for information from the Fire Department — three pages asking for details about the department's hiring, staffing and operational practices, and its interpretations of key labor union contract provisions.

Fire union President Steve LeClair and others suggested that the city should pursue a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Association to avoid layoffs without amending terms of the current fire union labor deal.

Such grants are designed to help departments increase or maintain staffing levels to better comply with National Fire Protection Association benchmarks.

Stothert, in an email to city officials last week, said the city would not pursue the grant.

The fire chief ranks among a small group of specially protected city directors who can be dismissed only for cause. City code refers to cause as anything that reflects discredit on the job “or is a direct hindrance to the effective performance of the city government functions.”

Such employees, according to city code, can be subject to discipline, including dismissal, for such reasons as criminal behavior, habitual use of alcohol, insubordination, incompetence or negligence.

Follow @PerezJr on Twitter for more

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